Bucs defense halts Ryan's late heroics
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the challenge of mounting a late defensive stand Sunday, they faced the NFL's reigning master of fourth-quarter dramatics.
Since entering the league as a first-round draft pick out of Boston College in 2008, quarterback Matt Ryan has led the Falcons on 21 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime.
That's tops in the NFL and the most by a quarterback in his first five seasons in almost a half-century.
"Everybody came out today on a mission,'' said versatile Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, who finished off a stellar rookie season in style by posting six stops, including one tackle for loss, a sack, two quarterback hits and a pass defended.
"I'm very proud of everybody in this room. All of us came together before the game and said this might be our last go-around together, so lets play our hearts out.''
Entering the final game of the season, the Bucs were within 252 yards of becoming the worst pass defense in league history, but held the Falcons to 213. After holding to Falcons to 65 yards rushing, Tampa Bay did set a franchise record in allowing only 82.5 rushing yards per game this season.
On Sunday, Tampa Bay forced seven punts, blocking one, while limiting the NFL's No. 7 offense to only 278 yards, well under Atlanta's average of 375.2. The Bucs were particularly sharp on third down as the Falcons converted only 3-of-14.
Perhaps most importantly, Ryan's 28-yard completion to Julio Jones in the second quarter marked Atlanta's only snap that gained more than 18 yards. Tampa Bay's defense entered the game having allowed 68 plays of 20 yards or longer.
"The season's not going to end where we wanted it to end,'' safety Ronde Barber said, "so this was all we had. I think we prepared like that and we played like that.''
After Ryan's 7-yard scoring pass to Harry Douglas sliced Atlanta's deficit to five points midway through the fourth quarter, the Falcons had one last opportunity with 3:44 remaining.
Taking over on his 19-yard line, Ryan found Tony Gonzalez for five yards on third-and-1. But with the Georgia Dome rocking, Ryan threw four consecutive incompletions to four different receivers.
On Atlanta's final offensive snap, rookie safety Mark Barron knocked away a pass intended for Gonzalez, the most prolific pass-catching tight end in NFL history.
"Mark Barron's a great player … and he's going to get even better with time,'' said cornerback E.J. Biggers. "He's going to be one of the best safeties in the league, and soon. Our attitude in the huddle at the end was let's make a play and get off the field. We've has our struggles in the fourth quarter, but not today.''
Tampa Bay's 7-9 finish was undermined by some late defensive lapses against the Giants, Redskins and Eagles, but the Bucs were determined to make key stops Sunday.
"On that last drive, we looked at each other and told ourselves that if the Falcons don't score, we win,'' said defensive tackle Roy Miller. "Some fourth quarters went our way this year, and some didn't. Today, we got the job done when it counted against a very good football team that went all out to win.''